By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Over the years, it hasn’t really mattered who Tom Brady has thrown the football to. If they get open, he’s going to hit them, and the Patriots are going to score points. Lots and lots of points.
Whether Brady has had one of the best receivers to ever play the game or a collection of spare parts from an offseason dumpster dive, he’s managed to move New England down the field one way or another. With Brady leading the way, we learned not to worry too much about his receivers, whether he had too many or too few. He also has that giant security blanket that sports a big No. 87, and a handful of running backs who can catch a pass or a dozen out of the backfield, so the Patriots can usually get by when their receiving corps isn’t near the top in the league.
But this year heading into training camp, even with a pretty large collection of pass catchers on the roster, the Patriots feel fairly thin at the position. That is somewhat worrisome considering Brady is about to turn 41. Danny “Playoff” Amendola is no longer here, and is now in Miami where he probably won’t see the postseason. Brandin Cooks is gone after one season in New England, a 65-reception/1,082-yard/7-touchdown campaign that you either loved or hated (for whatever reason, there wasn’t much middle ground in this conversation. Those who believe he had a bad season probably also get mad when their ice cream comes out a little too cold). Whichever camp you fall in on the Cooks front, his and Amendola’s departures leave a giant hole in the New England receiving corps. That hole gets significantly bigger for the first month of the season, with Julian Edelman set to miss the first four games of the season due to suspension. Oh by the way, Edelman is also coming back from a torn ACL that kept him out all of last season.
So yeah, there are a few question marks when it comes to New England’s wide receivers heading into training camp. Let’s take a closer look with camp set to kick off.
(Virtual) Roster Locks
On The Bubble
*though listed as receivers, these guys will do their damage on special teams
In reality, Edelman, Hogan and Slater are really the only locks, and if Slater is going out to catch passes, something went terribly wrong (or Josh McDaniels got a little loopy — again). Edelman will likely be a step or two slower as he comes back, but he should be his usual reliable self in the end. Hogan, who missed most of the second half of the season with a shoulder injury, has shown that he can be a reliable target for Brady over his two years with the Patriots.
After that, whoa boy. There is a lot of hope that Matthews can bounce back from a down season in Buffalo and pick up the New England system quickly, but newcomers don’t always fare well in the Patriots complex offense. That opens the door for Kenny Britt and/or Phillip Dorsett to earn not just a roster spot, but a role in the offense. Neither were very impressive last season (Britt had three catches in the final two games of the regular season, while Dorsett had just 12 in 15 games), but both are back for another shot. The Patriots actually picked up Britt’s option for 2018, so Bill Belichick must see something in the Rutgers alum, hopefully something beyond the fact that he’s a Rutgers alum.
Malcolm Mitchell may be the most interesting member of the group. He missed all of last season with a knee injury, and appeared to be working through something during offseason workouts this summer. He played a huge role in New England’s Super Bowl LI comeback win over the Falcons as a rookie, but has not had a chance to build off that performance. Injuries were the biggest red flag with Mitchell when the Patriots drafted him in the fourth round in 2016, so hopefully he’s able to come back and re-take his spot on the roster this summer.
Patterson is another intriguing addition, acquired from Oakland for a fifth-round pick (New England also received a sixth rounder in the swap). Like Slater, he’ll likely end up making his impact on special teams. He’s been a dynamic kick returner during his career, averaging 30.2 yards per kickoff return with five touchdowns, but he could also find his way into the offensive game plan with a good camp.
Berrios (a 2018 sixth-round pick who can also return punts), McCaron and Hollister are all fighting for a chance; a chance to either make the practice squad or surprise everyone and sneak onto the roster. To do so, they have a mighty hill to climb, but we’ve seen it before from late picks and undrafted players. It’s that feel-good story we all love to follow during the dog days of training camp.
The Patriots usually only carry four or five receivers on their roster, so this is going to be quite the battle over the next six weeks. Edelman’s suspension opens up a roster spot for the first month and an opportunity for someone who may not make the team otherwise, but that four-game ban and coming back from injury are a giant question mark for a position that already has plenty of those.
With Brady and Gronkowski, the Patriots offense will make it work. But it’s hard not to feel like the team is a little bit undermanned in terms of talent at wide receiver heading into training camp.